Patriotism and the Appropriate Response
As an Irish person now living in the United States, the real atrocities in New York and Washington compare with the worst nightmares I had growing up in a country where bombings and killings were a regular occurrence. But the final number of people killed in Tuesday's attack will probably even exceed the number killed in thirty years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
For people who see the United States as a country where individual liberties and free speech among its greatest assets, the commentary in most of the media this week has been grim and chilling. Common sense has very quickly given way to anger and vengeance. Skillful manipulation of this mood by the government and its public relations professionals in the media, the military, academia and business is still unfolding.
This feels like a country preparing for war against an enemy as yet unknown. All the cheerleaders have been granted television and radio pulpits to call for more violence, using patriotism to stir up anger and hatred, especially towards Arabs, who also bore the brunt of accusations following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, even though the perpetrator later turned out to be a former American soldier. We might recall that after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps. How will Arab-Americans fare, given the harsh racial discrimination they already encounter daily?
Patriotism, said H.L. Mencken, updating Samuel Johnson, is the great nursery of scoundrels, with an annual output probably greater than that of even religion. Its chief glories are the demagogue, the military bully, and the spreaders of libels and false history. Its philosophy rests firmly on the doctrine that the end justifies the means--that any blow, whether above or below the belt, is fair against dissenters from its wholesale denial of plain facts.
It would serve us well to reflect on some of these facts.
First, that thousands of innocent people, mostly secretaries, janitors and other office workers who usually arrive to work before 9AM as well as public emergency service employees were killed is consistent with other atrocities and conflicts where the poor and innocent suffer the most. These are the working people who bear the brunt of most oppression in this country and around the world, be it economic, political, nationalist or patriarchal. They are akin to those who have become victims on all sides in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East and in other areas of conflict.
Second, that the United States has been a force for both good and bad in the world should also be recognized. Despite what political leaders say, people in the world who oppose America do so not because they are against the positive things that the country stands for, such as democracy, civil liberties, and free speech. Of course most people who are denied these rights in their own countries support such goals; many activists are working to secure them, often using the U.S. as a positive example. Those who oppose America take this position because of the many detrimental actions that the U.S. takes around the globe, such as providing political and military support to dictatorships and autocratic regimes in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, in Central and South America and elsewhere throughout the last century and continuing today, facts largely unknown by (although available to) most Americans.
Since the end of the Cold War the same people have been particularly opposed to U.S. economic power and pressure, particularly on Third World countries. This newer form of colonialism, the drive towards Western economic hegemony, has certainly been undertaken without the express consent of the American people. People in countries where millions of children have starved to death or where innocent civilians have been killed by American-supplied weaponry (much of it U.S. taxpayer-funded) are understandably outraged.
Finally, it's plain that commercial airline attacks on densely populated buildings are not rational responses. Bertrand Russell once wrote that there is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action. This applies equally to the irrationality of suicide bombers who killed thousands of innocent working people on Tuesday as it does to the irrationality that their deaths can be avenged by launching a military strike to kill many more people, most of whom are likely to be just as innocent.
Thirty years of military response, repressive legislation and oppression of innocent people in Northern Ireland has failed to quell the hatred and violence that sectarianism engenders there. Similar "patriotic" responses by the U.S. government should be resisted by Americans in this country. Instead, ordinary Americans should pursue solidarity among working people around the world to defeat economic, political, national supremacy and patriarchal oppressions, the true sources of hatred and conflict.
Kevin Donegan is an Irish writer living in Berkeley, Calif. He has written for the Belfast Telegraph, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Z Magazine and others.